It was the biggest set ever built for a Hollywood film in the 1920s, and then it was buried in the sands of the California Coast. The real story begins when a young filmmaker embarks on a decades-long attempt to excavate it.
Thirty-three years ago, Peter Brosnan heard a story that seemed too crazy to be true: buried somewhere along California’s rugged Central Coast, beneath acres of sand dunes, lay the remains of a lost city. According to his friend at New York University’s film school, the remains of a massive Egyptian temple, a dozen plaster sphinxes, eight mammoth lions, and four 40-ton statues of Ramses II were all supposedly entombed in the sands 150 some-odd miles north of Los Angeles.
“It was an absolutely cockamamie story,” Brosnan says. “I thought he was nuts.” The ruins weren’t authentic Egyptian ones, of course. They were the 60-year-old remains of a massive Hollywood set—the biggest, most expensive one ever built at the time. The faux Egyptian scenery had played the role of the City of the Pharaoh in one of Hollywood’s first true epics, Cecil B DeMille’s 1923 filmThe Ten Commandments. The set had required more than 1,500 carpenters to build and used over 25,000 pounds of nails. The production nearly ruined DeMille and his studio. When the shoot wrapped, the tempestuous director supposedly strapped dynamite to the structures and razed the whole set, burying it in the sands near Guadalupe, California, to ensure no rival director could benefit from his vision.
“If 1,000 years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe,” the director teased, “I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization…extended all the way to the Pacific Coast.”
Bullshit, Brosnan thought. But then his buddy pointed him to a line in DeMille’s posthumously published autobiography. “If 1,000 years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe,” the director teased, “I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization…extended all the way to the Pacific Coast.”
By 1982, Brosnan had graduated from film school and was earning a living as a freelance journalist, but he couldn’t shake his friend’s story. The film student in him was enchanted by the idea of uncovering and preserving a forgotten bit of Hollywood’s history. That summer, Brosnan and his friend drove across the country, from New York City to a stretch of coast near Santa Barbara, to see the ruins for themselves. The whole affair, he thought, would make for a hell of a documentary.
“We were young, wannabe filmmakers, and I thought this was golden,” Brosnan says today. “We’ll find some archeologists, we’ll find the set, we’ll dig it up. The story writes itself.”
The City of the Pharaoh was not so much a movie set as it was a monument to the man who built it. DeMille was already a towering star in the early days of Hollywood, but in 1922 he was recovering from a streak of critical flops. He had gained a reputation for his sense of spectacle in films likeJoan the WomanandMale and Female, andThe Ten Commandmentswas to be his comeback.
Delivering DeMille’s blockbuster meant deploying a barrage of special effects, at least by the standards of the day. In 1923, set design was the only way to visually transport viewers to the Sinai in the time of Moses. The “desert” DeMille chose for his Israelites to wander, while certainly more convenient than filming on location in Egypt, presented a logistical nightmare. There were no nearby cities, no paved roads, and no place for his cast of thousands to stay. The 22,000 acres of sand dunes that separated the small farming town of Guadalupe from the Pacific Ocean was harsh and desolate. The sharp-grained sand that gives the wind there its added sting is devoid of nutrients, and, combined with constant salt sprays from the sea, makes life a rarity in the dunes. For DeMille, it was perfect.
“Your skin will be cooked raw,” DeMille told his army of 3,500 actors and extras, according to aLos Angeles Timesreporter on the scene. “You will miss the comforts of home. You will be asked to endure perhaps the most unpleasant location in cinema history. I expect of you your supreme efforts.”
The costs were mounting even before DeMille arrived in Guadalupe to begin shooting. Preproduction expenses were already approaching $700,000—an astronomical sum in the early days of Hollywood. More than a million pounds of statuary, concrete, and plaster were used to construct the 120-foot-tall, 800-foot-long temple and surrounding structures, and whole plaster sphinxes were sculpted and loaded onto trucks bound for the dunes. Every day on location meant feeding and housing the thousands of workers and animals. DeMille drove his construction team to work faster. Paramount Studios, the film’s backer, began sending DeMille increasingly desperate letters demanding that he cut costs. One receipt, for $3,000 spent on a “magnificent team of horses” for the pharaoh, pushed the studio over the edge, according to Sumiko Higashi, a professor emeritus at The College at Brockport, SUNY, and author ofCecil B. DeMille and American Culture: the Silent Era,a biography of DeMille.
“You have lost your mind,” telegraphed Adolph Zukor, founder of Paramount Pictures. “Stop filming and return to Los Angeles at once.” DeMille refused. He took out a personal loan and waived his guaranteed percentage of the movie’s gross to ensure the production continued. “I cannot and will not make pictures with a yardstick,” he wired back to the studio. “What do they want me to do?” he was rumored to have said, according to Higashi. “Stop now and release it asThe Five Commandments?”
Despite the warnings, DeMille pushed on. Bugles sounded every morning to 4:30 a.m. to wake the 5,000 workers and actors that populated the 24-square-mile tent city he’d built in the dunes. (It earned the nickname the City of DeMille.) His workers raised the 109-foot-tall Great Gate—an archway covered in intricate busts of rearing stallions—and buttressed it with two 35-foot-tall clay-and-plaster statues of the Pharaoh. They erected a “city wall”—built 750 feet long because DeMille refused to work with painted backgrounds or limit his cinematic choices. Five mammoth sphinxes, weighing over five tons each, lined the entrance to the ersatz Egyptian city.
Filming was done at a madcap pace and condensed into a mere three weeks, according to Scott Eyman’s biography,Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille. But even with the Exodus in the can, one more problem loomed. According to a prior agreement with the landowners, DeMille’s monumental set had to be dismantled before he left. Production costs had already ballooned to over $1.4 million, more than any other film previously made. DeMille considered reneging on the deal, Brosnan says, but likely worried about another issue: If he left is city standing, rival directors from other studios could easily swoop into Guadalupe and produce an epic on the cheap. DeMille would not have that. Rather than pay workers to take the set down, he settled on a faster method. Dynamite was supposedly strapped to the great temple he had built, and the City of the Pharaoh was brought down. According to legend, he ordered bulldozers to mound sand over the scattered remains and quickly left town.
Sixty years later, in 1983, Brosnan arrived at the dunes like the Children of Israel before him—completely lost. He knew the set was buried somewhere, but the dunes stretched nearly 30 miles, across two counties. Looking for clues, he called the Air Force base that occupied much of the coastline. (“Sir,” he says the sergeant on the other end of the line told him, “There is no Egyptian city buried at Vandenberg Air Force Base.”) He haunted local libraries. He hounded municipal politicians. No one could provide hints about the set’s exact location.
Then he stumbled upon an old ranch hand at a local tavern who had run cattle through the dunes for decades. On a cold and dark morning, after a savage storm had rearranged the topography of the dunes, Brosnan and the rancher hiked the sea of hundred-foot-high peaks, making their way a mile toward the pounding surf of the Pacific. Eventually they spied what locals called “the dune that never moves”—the sandy tomb that covered DeMille’s set—and saw a chunk of Plaster of Paris statuary poking through.
The discovery made headlines around the world and Brosnan fielded calls fromThe New York Times,NBC Nightly News, andPeoplemagazine. His documentary idea, which had seemed pie-in-the-sky a few months earlier, looked promising. And his pitch—that the lost city is the oldest existing Hollywood set left; that props from more modern shoots have already been preserved for posterity; that early set design was, in a sense, an American art form—struck a chord in the industry. Brosnan tentatively called his documentary projectThe Lost City.
Charlton Heston, star of DeMille’s 1956 remake of the film, publicly wished the project well, and local archaeologists volunteered their time to help in the excavation. A curator at the Smithsonian expressed interest in acquiring some pieces, once the dig wrapped. Promises for funding came in from Paramount Pictures and Bank of America. Brosnan moved to Hollywood with the intention of pursuing a career in the ‘biz. But first, he had to start digging.
“This will be a scientific exploration by highly trained personnel,” said a Cambridge-educated archaeologist who signed on in 1983. “Not a case of simply digging up stuff like potatoes. And if we’re serious about documenting movie history, then let’s do it properly.”
The excavation and documentary progressed, but Brosnan constantly faced two problems: funding and permitting. When he had the money, the county wouldn’t let him touch the environmentally sensitive area. (The western snowy plover, a federally protected species that nests along california’s coast, keeps the dunes off limits to people for half the year during breeding season.) By the time he got permission to dig, seven years later, funding had dried up. In 1990, several organizations, including the Smithsonian and the DeMille Family Trust, agreed to partially fund the project, and Brosnan and an archeologist used ground-penetrating radar to show that much of the set remained intact. But he couldn’t raise enough money to excavate the actual ruins. He needed $175,000 for an archeological dig to recover 60-year-old fake relics. “We don’t see this as a fake Egypt,” Brosnan told a reporter at the time. “We see this as real cinema history.”
But by the mid-1990s, Brosnan had been scraping by in the movie business for a decade, writing scripts and directing small projects. Lacking the money, he gave up the dig.
That DeMille’s ruins have survived intact to this day, albeit buried in the sands, is a quirk of geography. The dunes, which cover some 35 square miles of the coast here, formed about 15,000 years ago, according to Doug Jenzen, executive director of the non-profit Dunes Center in Guadalupe. Jenzen and his team run a small museum out of a craftsman on the town’s main (and only) drag and head up conservation efforts for the Dunes preserve. It’s a charming little museum that seems out of place among the shuttered movie theater and boarded up buildings of Guadalupe, but the Dunes and DeMille are the only source of tourism dollars in this largely agricultural area, Jenzen says.
Thousands of years ago, rivers swept mineral-dense rocks and boulders from the nearby coastal range down to the sea, eventually pummeling the earth into fine grain sand. “One of the reasons the movie set is preserved so well is because of the minerals in the sand,” Jenzen says. “You know how when you order something mail order and it comes with the silica packets? The sand actually acted as a natural desiccant that preserved the plaster for the statues.”
For 15 years, the ruins were left undisturbed. Every few years a reporter or a researcher would call and Brosnan would humor him or her with details of his odyssey in the dunes. Each time, he hoped the new round of publicity would inject dollars into the effort, but nothing ever came through.
In 2010, though, after theLos Angeles Timesran yet another piece on his unfinished dig, a woman—who wishes to remain anonymous—contacted Brosnan and offered to put up the money needed to finish the film. But by then he was married with children and had been away from the project for two decades. “My first response was a moment of panic,” Brosnan says. “There’s no way I could do this.”
But Brosnan hired a producer and an editor, and last fall, with the help of a Santa Barbara County grant, a team of archeologists excavated most of a sphinx. Brosnan was on hand to film it. “We had always wanted to end with a shot of the sphinx being found. And we got it,” he says. Using his early footage shot in the 1980s, Brosnan has pulled together a rough cut and has an editor working on a final draft. He says he’s looking for distributors and considering the film festival circuit soon.
In the Dune Center, Jenzen and his team display parts of one of the large plaster sphinxes and smaller relics that have been successfully pulled from the sand. “All of the statues were made of plaster,” he says. “They were built to last two months—92 years ago. I don’t think this could have happened anywhere else on earth.”
However, Jenzen says the ruins may not survive another 92 years. Powerful storms in the last few years have shifted the sands of the dunes dramatically—more of the set is now exposed to the elements than ever before. The Dunes Center needs $100,000 to unearth another sphinx to add it to the display, Jenzen says, before it’s too late. “It’s disappearing so fast,” he says, “Archeologists originally thought it’d last until 2090—but every time we go out, more is gone.”
The dharma wheel, or dharmachakra in Sanskrit, is one of the oldest symbols of Buddhism. Around the globe, it is used to represent Buddhism in the same way that a cross represents Christianity or a Star of David represents Judaism. It is also one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism. Similar symbols are found in Jainism and Hinduism, and it is likely the dharmachakra symbol in Buddhism evolved out of Hinduism.
A traditional dharma wheel is a chariot wheel with varying numbers of spokes. It can be in any color, although it is most often gold. At the center, there may be three shapes swirling together, a yin-yang symbol, a second wheel, or an empty circle.
What the Dharma Wheel Represents
A dharma wheel has three basic parts: the hub, the rim, and the spokes. Over the centuries, various teachers and traditions have proposed diverse meanings for these parts. Here are some common understandings of the wheel’s symbolism:
The circle, the round shape of the wheel, represents the perfection of thedharma, the Buddha’s teaching.
When a wheel has 24 spokes, the spokes represent the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination plus the reversing of the Twelves Links and liberation fromsamsara. A 24-spoke dharma wheel is also called anAshoka Chakra.
When a wheel has 31 spokes, the spokes represent the 31 realms of existence from ancient Buddhist cosmology.
The wheel often has spokes protruding beyond the wheel, which we might imagine are spikes, although usually, they don’t look very sharp. The spikes represent various penetrating insights.
The Ashoka Chakra
Among the oldest existing examples of a dharma wheel are found on the pillars erected by theAshoka the Great(304–232 B.C.E.), an emperor who ruled much of what is now India and beyond. Ashoka was a great patron of Buddhism and encouraged its spread, although he never forced it on his subjects.
Ashoka erected enormous stone pillars throughout his kingdom, many of which are still standing. The pillars contain edicts, some of which encouraged people to practice Buddhist morality and nonviolence. There is typically at least one lion on the top of each pillar, representing Ashoka’s rule. The pillars also are decorated with 24-spoke dharma wheels.
In 1947, the government of India adopted a new national flag, in the center of which is a navy blue Ashoka Chakra on a white background.
Other Symbols Related to the Dharma Wheel
Sometimes the dharma wheel is presented in a tableau, supported on a lotus flower pedestal with two deer, a buck, and a doe on either side. This recalls thefirst sermongiven by thehistorical Buddhaafter hisenlightenment. The sermon is said to have been given to five mendicants in Sarnath, a deer park in what is now Uttar Pradesh, India.
According to Buddhist legend, the park was home to a herd of ruru deer, and the deer gathered around to listen to the sermon. The deer depicted by the dharma wheel reminds us that the Buddha taught to save all beings, not just humans. In some versions of this story, the deer are emanations of bodhisattvas.
Typically, when the dharma wheel is represented with deer, the wheel must be twice the height of the deer. The deer are shown with legs folded under them, gazing serenely at the wheel with their noses lifted.
The first turning was the sermon in the deer park, after the Buddha’s enlightenment. Here, the Buddha explained the Four Noble Truths. The second turning was the introduction of the perfection of wisdom teachings on the nature of sunyata (emptiness). The third turning was the introduction of the doctrine of Buddha Nature.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The Dharma Wheel (Dharmachakra) Symbol in Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Aug. 28, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-dharma-wheel-449956.
On New Year’s Eve in 1966, undercover officers atthe Black Cat Tavern inSilver Lakebegan to handcuff and beat the patrons and staff as everyone was exchanging celebratory midnight kisses. An estimated 14 people were arrested, many charged with lewd conduct and forced to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.
Other Silver Lake gay bars, including New Faces, a few doors down, were targeted the same evening. Two years before the Stonewall uprising, more than 200 people came together outside the Black Cat for one of the earliest U.S. LGBTQ-rights demonstrations. Picketers gathered on February 11, 1967, to peacefully protest the police raids that had been conducted weeks before. Alexei Romanoff, a former owner of New Faces, describes the Black Cat demonstration as a turning point. During a time in which homosexuality was illegal in most states, LGBTQ people developed elaborate codes and survival strategies to avoid arrest. But that February night, Romanoff says, the community stood up and fought back.
Now 82, he is the last surviving organizer of Personal Rights in Defense and Education (P.R.I.D.E.), one of the groups that helped stage the 1967 stand. We traveled back to that monumental moment with Romanoff.
How were the protests organized?
We didn’t have computers, we didn’t have cell phones, but what we did have was called a phone tree. One person would immediately call another 10 people and tell them what had happened, and then each of them would call 10 more people. It took us about two weeks to organize the protest. The Hub Bar [in Alhambra] was the only place that allowed us to meet. We were cautious. We kept moving the demonstration up and down the block so we couldn’t be charged with loitering. We had flyers printed up. People would ask what was going on. We’d give them a flyer, and if they dropped it, we would rush over, grab it and pick it up so we wouldn’t be considered to be littering.
What was the protest like?
If you look at the pictures, none of the regular news media covered us. They were all from the Free Press at the time. They were the only ones that covered the demonstration. A couple of years ago, I met with [former] police chief [William J.] Bratton, and we were looking at the pictures, when I said, “Do you see anybody smiling there?” He said no. And I said, “That’s because [the protesters] were all terrified to do this, but they knew they had to.” It took place in the evening because they had jobs they would likely lose the next day.
What were the risks?
If the major news media would have covered that demonstration, their faces would have been in the newspapers, but the newspapers didn’t think it was very important because it was only those “unhappy homosexuals.” At that time, we could be put into a sanitarium for being gay. And our families could have us committed if they were embarrassed by us. There, you were subject to shock treatments and chemically castrated. We were afraid, but we couldn’t take it anymore. You couldn’t just come in, beat us up and take us to jail because we were who we were.
What was the aftermath of the protests?
Once you let the cat out of the bag, there’s no stopping it. I started an organization, Santa Monica Bay Coalition for Human Rights. In 1970, we were marching in the LA Pride parade, and we had this big banner. I was in the front, and there were mounted police officers. I was nervous, but one of them turned his horse away from all the rest and gave me a V-for-victory sign. I knew we were going to be okay.
And what was the legacy at the Black Cat?
We got the Black Cat designated as a historic landmark. There’s a plaque on the front of the building now. When I went back one time, there was a note that was attached to the plaque, and all it said was “thank you.” That was enough for everything.
Romanoff discussed the evening’s events with Time Out, and his account has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.